Job Placements Search

Reference Checking

Thanks for tuning in to the final episode in our series on the nonprofit job search. In this series, I have discussed the challenges professionals face around making a decision to leave a current nonprofit employer, reading and evaluating a job description, preparing your resume and cover letter, navigating the interview, salary negotiations and most recently, leaving your current position in good standing. At long last, I am ready to address my final search topic – that of checking, and providing, references.

The number one question people ask about references is “what type of reference should I provide?”  So let’s break this down:

Do I need a reference from my current employer? 
Not necessarily. Many of us are seeking new employment while currently employed elsewhere, so providing a professional reference from your current place of business is not an easy task. Most prospective employers understand this dilemma and will not hold it against you if you are not able to provide a current work reference. That said, prospective employers are often happy to speak to a lay leader or colleague who you trust to maintain confidentiality about your search process.

Should I provide both lay and professional references?
Generally, this is a good idea, but it depends on the position. Prospective employers like to speak to your lay leadership for positions that involve fundraising, or for those that interact regularly with a board of directors (like an executive director or CEO). Positions in finance, program, operations or HR may not necessitate a lay reference. When I am conducting a search, I am interested in speaking to references that include as many past direct supervisors as possible. Although I like hearing what colleagues have to say about a candidate, I’m always a little suspicious when I cannot speak directly to someone who supervised the candidate. So, do try to contact past supervisors and ask them to serve as references (before you provide their names to prospective employers!).

Do I need a personal reference?
Not necessarily. Candidates often offer personal (or character) references to me but I hardly ever utilize this option. Why? Because I am less interested in what someone’s friend, or even close colleague, has to say about them than a supervisor, manager, CEO or high level lay leader. A personal reference feels less objective to me than a professional reference. So unless you are asked for a personal reference, err on the side of providing references that highlight different aspects of your professional career. Choose people who know you well and who you are 100% sure will say nice things about you! Sound obvious? You would be surprised at how many times I have called a reference who says “I’m actually surprised they listed me…” or does not have a current sense of the candidate’s career goals or skill set. Be sure you prepare your references for questions they may receive about your expertise, knowledge base, characteristics, or aspirations.

How many references should I provide?
Most prospective employers are looking for 2 – 4 references, so make sure you have current contact information at hand, and again, prepare your references for the call. Be sure they have a basic understanding of the position for which you are applying.

What happens when past employers do not provide references, just dates of employment?
This may be the policy at a prior place of business – but I have almost always found that, if you have done a great job there, there is someone willing to have an off-the-record conversation about your work. If a past employer is truly unwilling to do more than confirm your dates of employment, they may not be the best reference for you anyway!

Check out this week’s freebie for some help in preparing your referees for what an employer might ask. And, if you are in the position of serving as reference checker, this freebie will help you formulate your conversation with the referee. Please note that I have advised job seekers to provide references from past direct supervisors (see above!). Be sure you speak to those who have managed the candidate, either directly (preferred) or indirectly.

I wish you the best of luck as you onboard new employees or explore new career opportunities. I look forward to your comments and questions. Next up – I am excited to launch a new series on the ‘end of year’ campaign in just two weeks! Stay tuned….